The Virtuous Life Is Worth Living: Real Men Choose Virtue

TIM GRAY

The virtues give us a blueprint for being a man. Indeed, the very term virtue comes from the Latin word for man, vir. For the ancients, to be manly was to be virtuous. The term virtue in Latin (virtus) signifies power, strength, and ability.


The virtues give us a blueprint for being a man. Indeed, the very term virtue comes from the Latin word for man, vir. For the ancients, to be manly was to be virtuous. The term virtue in Latin (virtus) signifies power, strength, and ability. Thus the virtues are habits that give us the power to act in a manly way, with strength sufficient to do what is right. Without virtues we will neither be godly nor real men. Virtues are the building blocks of character, and without them our moral lives will eventually collapse under the pressures of the world.

Virtues are essential to living well and, even more, to living the Christian life well. St. Peter exhorted the early Christians about the vital role of the virtues saying, “[M]ake every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). A few verses later he admonishes us that practicing the virtues will keep us from being “ineffective or unfruitful” in following Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:8). In other words, our lives will only be as effective, meaningful, and fruitful as we are virtuous. No wonder St. Peter admonishes us to “make every effort” to obtain virtue.

Our society assumes that values are the key to morality. Values-based moral education programs exemplify the modern conviction that morality is nothing other than the art of making good choices, which are guided entirely by one’s values. One could critique this approach to morality on philosophic grounds, but my criticism is simple and to the point. The bottom line is that values do not make men moral. That may sound radical, but let us look at some commonsense examples.

I can value sailing, but that does not make me a sailor. Likewise, many men can value fidelity to marriage, but that does not make them faithful. Indeed, most men who have committed adultery valued fidelity (no need for value clarification), but despite their values they tragically abandoned their vows. Having good values is a fine thing, but the battle of morality is not so much about knowing what is right as it is doing what is right. The difference between wanting to do good and actually doing it is tremendous.

For example, I can value flying, spend countless hours as a passenger, and be the most avid aviation fan around, but that does not enable me to fly a plane. In order to fly, one must have the skills of a pilot. Many people want to fly, but few have the ability. If our moral life is to get off the ground, we must acquire the skills necessary to fly.

Many men want to be good husbands and fathers, but if this wanting is not supplemented by the virtues — the skills for successful moral living — then a successful landing will be unlikely. To guide the ship of our moral life to port we must be men who are seasoned in the virtues, and so possess the habits that will enable us to live the values we profess. Values alone will not suffice.

In our forthcoming Bible study on the virtues, Curtis Martin and I give a thorough explanation of what virtues are and how they operate. We then examine the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude (i.e., courage), and temperance, and also the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. For this article, let’s take a detailed look at just one of these, the virtue of courage. St. Thomas Aquinas understood that courage is the form of all the virtues, for to practice any virtue consistently takes the firmness of character that comes with courage. For example, to be honest requires courage, especially when telling the truth is difficult.

Of all the virtues, courage is the one that is often particularly associated with men. Men are to be tough and strong, and therefore courageous. Too often, however, this association gives us a narrow picture of courage, a picture that sees courage as simply for fighting. Undoubtedly, soldiers need to be fortified with courage, but courage is bigger than the battlefield. Courage is required in a variety of ways that we seldom even realize. For example, do you realize that to be generous with our money and material goods takes courage? The things that require the virtue of courage can range from taking care of someone with a serious illness, taking a plane trip, or simply studying. Indeed, the virtue of courage is so basic that we need it to exercise all of the other virtues.

What is courage? Courage is the strength of will that enables us to conquer fear. It often happens that we know what we ought to do, but we’re afraid to do it because of the consequences we may suffer as a result. Fear makes our will disinclined to follow our reason because of some difficulty. Courage ensures that we will have the firmness of mind and will to overcome our fear and do what is right and good regardless of the difficulties. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas says that “fortitude of soul must be that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils” (Summa Theologiae IIa Iiae q. 123, art. 4).

 

Scripture gives us many examples of how men allow fear to dictate their actions. Note how fear dictated each person’s actions in the following Scripture passages.

  • Genesis 3:10 (Adam hid himself from God’s presence our of fear.)
  • Numbers 13:1-14:10 (Ten of the 12 spies bring an evil report of the Promised Land out of fear that God will not be with them in the battle to take the land.)
  • 1 Samuel 17:19-24 (Men of Israel flee from battle against Goliath and the Philistines out of fear that they will perish in battle against them.)
  • Mathew 14:3-12 (Herod doesn’t kill John the Baptist initially our of fear of the people, and later has him beheaded out of fear of going against his rash oath in front of his guests.)
  • John 19:38 (Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple out of fear of the Jews.)


NO PAIN NO GAIN

Fear causes us to withdraw from a perceived difficulty. We fear to suffer some evil or to lose something we desire, and so we allow fear to dictate our actions, rather than act according to what is right in keeping with God’s will and law.

Fear can be so strong as to prevent people from acting because of some difficulty or threat. So, some people may fear to fly, and thus their fear keeps them from traveling, whether for business, family, or faith. Imagine if St. Paul were overcome by fear of sailing (traveling by ship in his day was far more dangerous than by plane in our own) and decided not to evangelize much of the Roman Empire? Or, what if Beethoven would have given in to his fears and stopped writing symphonies after he went deaf? Much good can be lost through fear.

All our daily challenges require the firmness of mind and will that the virtue of courage provides. A student may fear to take the best course in his field, because the professor is demanding. A man may be afraid to evangelize a coworker out of fear for how he will be regarded or out of fear of not being able to answer every objection. Some are afraid to use a computer or learn a new skill because it may be too complicated for them. We fear to say no to others because we want to be liked. In the home, how many fathers fail to discipline their children for fear that their children will not like them? People fail to be honest out of fear. Whenever we lie it is because we fear that telling the truth will cause us some kind of grief.

Fear hinders us from being men of action; it is much safer to be a spectator in life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The key to being a man of action is to be a man of courage. This virtue gives us the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life (cf. Catechism, no. 1808). As compared to all other people, Christians have the most reason to take courage, because our God is God of all creation and has redeemed us and freed us from the powers of evil. In Joshua 1:9, God tells Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” The reason God gives Joshua for taking courage is that He, God Himself, will be with Joshua.

Like Joshua, we too have been given a mission, and if we call upon the God who is present to us we shall succeed. All our obstacles will fall as the walls of Jericho fell before Joshua.

COURAGEOUS TO THE END

Courage also entails that we be ready to die for the sake of what is right. Our Christian faith makes it clear that we must be willing to die rather than sin. This is what the martyrs have done in laying down their lives for Christ.

A classic example of this aspect of courage is found in the story of Eleazar (cf. 2 Mac. 6:18-31). During a pagan persecution of the Jews, an old man Eleazar is told to sacrifice to the gods and eat pork, which is forbidden to Jews. The narrative says that Eleazar took courage as men should and refused to break the law of God, even under threat of death and torture. Some of the officials give Eleazar the option of faking his homage to the gods, but he replies: “For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws” (2 Mac. 6:26-28, emphasis added).

Eleazar is an exceptional model of how even the good of this life must not be held dearer than God and His law.

To navigate well the stormy seas of our lives, we need the firmness of character that comes through the virtue of courage. Without courage we will shrink back from acting, and our many fears of wind and waves will keep us from persevering in our arduous journey. Values will not keep our minds and hearts steeled against the storm, but the habit of courage will give us the strength to sail ahead, come what may, by God’s grace.

 

Fear creates cowards, men who give up the truth or some good for fear of suffering. Courage, on the other hand, empowers us to take on life’s challenges, and this gives us solid character. Let’s examine some of the Scripture’s examples of courageous men:

  • 1 Samuel 17:32-49 (David goes up against Goliath, trusting in God’s deliverance.).
  • Daniel 3:8-28 (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to deny their faith by worshipping a false god.).
  • Matthew 14:3-4 (John the Baptist speaks the truth even though it landed him in jail and cost him his life.).
  • Mark 15:43 (Joseph of Arimathea gives public witness to Jesus by asking to care for His body.)


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gray, Tim. “The Virtuous Life Is Worth Living: Real Men Choose Virtue.” Lay Witness (June 2000).

Reprinted by permission of Lay Witness

THE AUTHOR

Tim Gray, a member of CUF’s board of directors, is assistant professor of Scripture and Catechetics at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Front Royal, VA.

Copyright 2000 Lay Witness